Anthony Bourdain starts his journey through Sicily in style by sharing a spleen sandwich at Sicily’s oldest restaurant with Sicily's president.
Sicily is an autonomous region of Italy. The island is characterized by a densely mountainous landscape. Minor islands around it, such as the Aegadian Islands, Aeolian Islands, Pantelleria, Lampedusa are part of Sicily. Sicily and its small surrounding islands are extremely interesting to volcanologists. Mount Etna, located in the east of mainland Sicily with a height of 10,890 ft, is the tallest active volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Its central location and natural resources ensured that it has been considered a crucial strategic location due in large part to its importance for Mediterranean trade routes.
The history of Sicily has seen Sicily usually controlled by greater powers—Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Islamic, Hohenstaufen, Catalan, Spanish—but also experiencing short periods of independence, as under the Greeks and later as the Emirate then Kingdom of Sicily. At times the island has been at the heart of great civilizations, at other times it has been nothing more than a colonial backwater. Its fortunes have often waxed and waned depending on events out of its control, in earlier times a magnet for immigrants, in later times a land of emigrants. Today, Sicily is an autonomous part of the Republic of Italy.
The Sicilian economy is well diversified. The agriculture sector is significant with citrus fruits (mainly oranges and lemons), olives and olive oil, grapes and wine; cattle, mules, donkeys, and sheep are also raised. There are important tuna and sardine fisheries. Sicily manufactures processed food, chemicals, refined petroleum, fertilizers, textiles, ships, leather goods, and forest products. There are petroleum fields in the southeast, and natural gas and sulfur are also produced. Tourism is also important sectors for the island. Sicily's five UNESCO World Heritage Sites include Baroque towns, archaeological sites, and volcanic islands.
The people of Sicily are often portrayed as very proud of their island, identity and culture and it is not uncommon for people to describe themselves as Sicilian, before the more national description of Italian. Ethnic Sicilians are descended from the early Greek settlers, the native Sicani people, North Africans, and Northern Italians. Sicilian people tend to most closely associate themselves with other southern Italians, with whom they share a common history.
The island of Sicily itself has a population of approximately five million. In Sicily there are only two metropolitan areas, Palermo which has about 900,000 people and Catania which has 650,000 people. There are around 100 thousand immigrants living in Sicily or nearly 2% of the total population; Romanians with more than 17,000 make up the most immigrants, followed by Tunisians, Moroccans, Sri Lankans, Albanians, and others mostly from Eastern Europe.
Sicily is part of the Mezzogiorno (southern Italy, including Sicily and often Sardinia), a region historically characterized by a predominantly agrarian economy, quasi-feudal land tenure, sharp class differences, and the vendettas and criminal activities of the Camorra in Naples and the Mafia in Sicily. Sicily, like all regions of Italy when viewed separately, has its own rich and unique culture, especially with regard to Sicilian music, cuisine, architecture, language and their arts.
The Sicilian cuisine shows traces of all the cultures which established themselves on the island over the last two millennia. Although its cuisine undoubtably has a predominantly Italian base, Sicilian food also has Spanish, Greek and Arab influences.
Palermo is the capital of Sicily. It is located in the northwest of the island of Sicily. Palermo is over 2,700 years old and one of the most ancient sites in Sicily. Today, Palermo is a city still struggling to recover from the devastation of World War II and the damage caused by decades of uncontrolled urban growth. The historic city centre is still partly in ruins, the traffic is horrific, and poverty is widespread.
Palmero is the city in which the Sicilian Mafia historically had its main interests. The main topic of the contemporary age is the struggle against the Mafia.
Palermo is the main Sicilian industrial and commercial center: the main industrial sectors include tourism, services, commerce and agriculture. In fact, for cultural, artistic and economic reasons, Palermo was one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean and is now among the top tourist destinations in both Italy and Europe. The city is also going through careful redevelopment, preparing to become one of the major cities of the Euro-Mediterranean area.
Ninety eight percent of 900,000 people who live in Palermo are of Sicilian/Italian descent. The largest immigrant group comes from South Asia (mostly from Sri Lanka): 0.80%, other European countries (mostly from Albania, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia and Ukraine): 0.3%, and North Africa (mostly from Tunisia): 0.28%.
Palermo is Sicily's cultural, economic and touristic capital. It is a city rich in history, culture, art, music and food. Numerous tourists are attracted to the city for its good Mediterranean weather, its renowned gastronomy and restaurants, its Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches, palaces and buildings, and its nightlife and music. Palmero the seat of a University frequented by many students coming from Islamic countries, as its relationships with the Muslim world never ceased.
Roman Catholicism is highly important in Palermitan culture. The patron saint of the city is Saint Rosalia. Her feast day on July 15 is perhaps the biggest social event in the city. The area attracts significant numbers of tourists each year and is widely known for its colourful fruit, vegetable and fish market at the heart of Palermo, known as the Vucciria.
Hoping his trip to Sicily will renew his recently lost excitement for travel, Anthony Bourdain arrives in Palmero eager to experience Sicily's food and culture.
Ristorante Antica Focacceria San Francesco: Anthony visits the Ristorante Antica Focacceria San Francesco. His guide Chico has helped to arrange for Anthony to have lunch with Salvatore Cuffaro, an Italian politician and the President of Sicily. The President's favorite dish is panino con le panelle (a sandwich made of chickpeas fried up in fritters). So, they order that and a foccacia maritata (spleen sandwich).
Founded in 1834, Ristorante Antica Focacceria San Francesco is not only a historic landmark, but also one of Italy's oldest existing restaurants. The restaurant features some of the best and most typical Sicilian cuisine in Sicily, which is a fusion of influences from Italian, Greek, Spanish, Arab and Bourbon cuisine.
Desert: President Cuffaro takes Anthony to have his favorite desert: watermelon gelée (jelly) prepared with little chucks of chocolate and pistachio.
Cuci Lampo Tailors: Having lost his luggage, his friend and guide, Chico, offers to take Anthony to Cuci Lampo Tailors. Chico's friends are not only tailors, but also musicians. They're so busy playing traditional Sicilian folk music for Anthony, they never actually get around to taking his measurements.
Piazza della Pretoria: Anthony stops by Francesco Camillian's Fontana Pretoria in Piazza della Pretoria. Once locally known as the Fontana della Vergogna, the "fountain of shame", because of the nude statues that stand around the base of each tier, it is one of the few true pieces of High Renaissance art in Palermo.
The Fontana Pretoria was originally commissioned for the garden of the villa outside Florence of Luigi Alvarez de Toledo, brother-in-law of Cosimo I de' Medici; it was completed in 1555. In its original site, Giorgio Vasari called it a "most stupendous fountain that has not its peer in Florence or perhaps in Italy." It was bought by the Senate of Palermo in 1573 and transported to Palermo. The sculpture of the fountain depicts fables, monsters, and nymphs all spraying jets of water, which also falls and cascades between them.
Capo Market: Chico takes Anthony to Palermo's Capo Market, reputedly the oldest market in the world at 1,000 years old. They meetup with another of Chico's friends, Gaetano Basile, a famous writer and historian of Sicilian culture. Basile believes that a visit to Capo Market offers an easy way to learn about Sicilian culture. Then they head off in search of some frittola. Anthony scoffs down a nondescript clump of frittola he refers to as "mystery meat" and washes it down with some red wine from yet another street vendor.
Frittola is one of the oldest and most characteristic dishes of Palermo, dating back to around 500 years ago. It is made from processing of the bones and scraps of butchers. These are boiled at a high temperature for a long time in large boilers until the remaining meat detaches from the bones. After the meat is cooked it is pressed to remove moisture and then fried with lard and seasoned with bay leaf, saffron and pepper. The resulting frittola is then stored in a wicker basket that is kept well-covered to stay warm until it's sold and consumed on the street with a lot of lemon to make it less greasy, in a sandwich or taking it by itself.
When walking through the historic center of Palermo, especially in the heart of the ancient Capo Market, it is common to stumble upon small crowds of people shouting around a basket covered with rags. The vendor will reach into their basket and pull out a clump of frittola with their bare hand and plop in onto either a sheet of wax paper or between two slices of bread.
Sailing and Cliff Jumping: Anthony joins Chico and a few of his friends for some sailing. Sicily's northern coast is an almost uninterrupted string of beautiful beaches and resort towns. Chico suggests they try some cliff jumping. After a long climb up the side of a steep cliff, first Chico and then Anthony take the plunge.
Trapani Salt Flat: Anthony visits the Trapani salt flat where table salt is produced. Trapani boasts some of Europe's oldest salt marshes, and is still home to some of the windmills once used to drain water from the basins (containing ponds). Drawing salt from water remains a slow process, similar to desalination. Chico arranges a salt-based meal with the two proprietors. They prepare for Anthony octopus salad, handmade pasta, caponata, and spigola (European seabass). The spigola is first covered in a thick coat of sea salt and then baked in the oven. Since the moisture cannot escape from the salt-encrusted fish, it cooks in its own juices, surprisingly without a trace of saltiness in its flavor.
Caponata is a Sicilian aubergine dish consisting of a cooked vegetable salad made from chopped fried eggplant and celery seasoned with sweetened vinegar, with capers in a sweet and sour sauce. Numerous local variations of the ingredients exist with some versions adding olives, carrots and green bell peppers, and others adding potatoes, or pine nuts and raisins. Today, caponata is typically used as a side dish for fish dishes and sometimes as an appetizer, but since the 1700s it has also been used as a main course.
Caper Farm: A visit to Pantelleria, a volcanic island, makes Anthony feel he is in Paradise. He visits a caper farm and discovers that caper farming is labor intensive, back-breaking work. The caper farmers treat Anthony to a lunch feast of fresh fruits, grilled fish, king prawns, grilled tomatoes for a fresh pasta sauce with crushed basil and capers, insalata pantesca and homemade wine. Insalata pantesca is a typical Pantellerian salad made from boiled potatoes, tomatoes, onions, black olives, capers, and oregano. Anthony's overwhelmed with the farmers' generous hospitality, until he learns that he has to work for it all.
Fishing for Squid: Anthony hops a twin-engine plane to the tiny remote Sicilian island of Lampedusa, in the middle of the Mediterranean, to go fishing for squid. Lampedusa's population of approximately 4,500 subsists on fishing, agriculture and tourism. Once on the fishing boat, Anthony learns fishing is for squid is an arduous, manual task. After hours of no results, and a lot of choppy water, he finally manages to hook one squid.
Game of Bocce: Once back on shore, Anthony cruises around the island on a scooter. He stops to join a few senior locals for a game of bocce.
Bocce is a ball sport that's closely related to bowls and pétanque with a common ancestry from ancient games played in the Roman Empire. Developed into its present form in Italy (where it is called bocce, which means "ball"), it is played around Europe and also in overseas areas that have received Italian migrants. Bocce is traditionally played on natural soil and asphalt courts 90 feet in length and 8-13 feet wide.
Village of Taormina: As an avid cinephile, Anthony has always believed that film and food are two important windows into a country's soul. So he heads to Taormina, a comune and small town on the east coast of the island of Sicily. The village of Taormina is perched on a cliff overlooking the Ionian sea. Taormina has been a very popular tourist destination since the 19th century. Besides its ancient Greek amphitheater, Taormina has many old churches, lively bars, fine restaurants, and antique shops. Taormina is also a forty-five minute drive away from Europe's largest active volcano, Mount Etna.
Ancient Theatre: Anthony visits Taormina's ancient Greek amphitheater. Since the theatre is the site of the annual Taormina Film Fest, he is joined by Vincenzo, a Sicilian filmmaker who will subsequently go on to direct the show's Tuscany episode. They discuss film in general and most filmmaker's depiction of Sicily in particular.
The Ancient Theatre is one of the most celebrated ruins in Sicily, on account both of its remarkable preservation and of the surpassing beauty of its situation. It is an exceptional stage for pop and classical concerts, opera and important performances often recorded by television. Taormina Arte, a cultural institution, has organized many famous music, theatre and dance festivals at the theatre.
Since 1971, every year the Taormina Film Fest, a historic film festival which first began in 1955, has been held at the Ancient Theatre. The festival has hosted over the years many stars of international cinema: Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren, Cary Grant, Robert De Niro, Colin Firth, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Tom Cruise, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, among others.
Sicilian Bakery: Vincenzo takes Anthony to a chic bakery for a cannoli like no others that can be found outside of Sicily. One bite and Anthony has to agree. Cannoli are a pastry dessert that originated in Sicily and are an essential part of Sicilian cuisine. Cannoli consist of tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing mascarpone. They range in size from "cannulicchi", no bigger than a finger, to the fist-sized proportions.
Picnic on Mount Etna: Vincenzo takes Anthony for a hike to up Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe, and the highest mountain in Italy south of the Alps. Vincenzo boasts that all Sicilians know a lot about wine, food, sex, movies—basically everything that is related with pleasure. Anthony reflects upon this and concurs. They end their hike with a picnic on a desolate rim of the volcano.
Mount Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and is in an almost constant state of activity. The fertile volcanic soils support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards spread across the lower slopes of the mountain. In Greek Mythology, the deadly monster Typhon was trapped under this mountain by Zeus, the god of the sky.
Having rediscovered his joy of travel, Anthony concludes that when you let pleasure control your life and not your life control pleasure, you'll find great passion.